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Roger groaned and rolled over. His right arm flopped onto a body, and he didn't move, waiting, feeling the breath raise his arm, then lower it. He struggled to turn his head, and was surprised to see small footlights around the perimeter of the room, lighting the area in patches. Blinking cleared his vision. His head felt like molten lead that needed to be poured and re-set. His body did more than ache, it was pain itself. But fear pushed him past this, and he listlessly raised his arm and let it thump heavily on the heaving chest below it. "Collins." He was alive. There was no way they were alive, not after that. He thumped his arm again. "Collins. Don't make me get up and come over there."
"Aw . . .fuck." The deep voice rumbled in displeasure, and Roger tried to laugh. "What the hell?"
"That was science, man."
"That shit wasn't science." Collins had yet to move, and his voice was slow and slurred. His arm draped over his eyes as he groaned.
Roger turned his head back so that he was looking at the ceiling. The sides of his throat were sticking together. "B– Benny?" he forced out.
Collins tried to raise his head, but couldn't. Not yet. "Benny," he said loudly, "you asshole. Where are you?" There was no sound, which didn't bode well, but considering the circumstances, they could give him another minute or so.
Roger blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to talk his body into moving, but it didn't want to. His mind was fuzzy, it seemed he was forgetting something. He was content to just lay there for as long as it took to remember.
There was a sound of shifting metal, and a heavy thud. Roger's breath quickened. A shadow appeared slowly, and he turned his head toward it, unable to move out of its way. Collins managed to raise his head, and cursed as Nate appeared in the light. He hovered over the two men, and crouched down between them. "You did it," he said, his accented voice soft. "Thank you."
Roger stopped breathing. His chest jerked painfully, reminding him to inhale, and he did so, asking, "What happened?"
Nate smiled faintly. "You gathered the power. You directed it, and it was destroyed before He could take hold of it. I'm sorry it had to be this way."
"You . . .you . . ."
"Go ahead. Say it."
Roger struggled to raise his head. "You mean you were with us the whole time! You knew this would happen, you wanted it to happen this way."
"I did. You saved the world, young man." Nate smiled and patted Roger on the shoulder.
Collins found the strength to sit up. "You bastard," he muttered, "you fucking bastard!"
"I assure you, it was necessary," Nate said. He didn't sense the man rising behind him, and didn't heed the warning as the pipe slammed into the back of his head, knocking him to the floor.
Benny collapsed beside Collins, letting the pipe clatter to the ground. "Serves him right."
Roger pushed onto his elbows. "What the hell did you just do?"
"Hope I killed him."
Roger stared him down, incredulous. "He was on our side, you bastard! He was finally explaining things!"
"No he wasn't!" But Benny suddenly looked panicked. "He wasn't! After all that? He. . .aw, shit." He quickly put his hand to Nate's pulse. "Coulda told me. Could of fucking. . .how the hell was I supposed to know? I just walked up, went to Mark, and got my fucking head beat in."
"Forget it, man. He okay?"
Benny hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah. I think so."
"Okay." And it was then that Roger realized what he'd forgotten. "Mark! Fuck! Where the hell is Mark?" He yelled in rage when he realized he couldn't sit up. Collins pulled him to an upright position and waited as he got his bearings. Both he and Benny helped Roger to stand.
The explosion, if that's what it had been, had decimated the room. The three friends knew that Mark was across from where the chamber previously stood, though there was no pole to be seen. They carefully tread over the cracked glass and falling materials. Collins looked up nervously. "This place ain't gonna last long."
"He's here. I know he is."
"Of course he is, just, hang on. Slow down a minute!"
"Mark! Can you hear me?"
"Damn it, hang on, boy! There." Collins readjusted his grip as Roger slipped. "Look, you sit here, let me and Benny look. You're done in."
Roger snorted. "As if. Mark?"
"Wait a minute!" Benny suddenly ducked out from underneath Roger's arm and charged towards a lump of debris. "Here!" He shifted large chunks of material aside, and found a hand, the wrist red and bleeding.
"Shit!" Roger pulled away and landed in a heap beside the pile. He joined in the digging until they uncovered Mark, unbound, the heavy pole laying across his torso. He was pale, and not breathing. "Son of a bitch, I'll kill him, I don't care, I'll kill him . . ."
"Grab that end. . ."
"I know, I know!"
Roger and Benny both took hold of the pole and carefully lifted it from Mark's chest, then cleared away the rest of the debris as Collins leaned over the stricken man. "Come on physician," he muttered, "heal thyself."
"He's not a . . .screw it. Mark," Roger patted his cheeks as Benny checked for a pulse. "Don't you dare, you bastard, wake up," he muttered frantically when Benny shook his head, "we're done, it's all over, wake up. Damn you, WAKE UP!" He slapped Mark hard, so hard his head lolled to the side. He did it again, and again, his desperation growing until Collins grabbed his hands and held them.
"Roger! Get a hold of yourself!"
"Then tell him to wake the fuck up!" Roger screamed at him. "We didn't go through this shit for it to end this way, dammit, WAKE UP!" He pulled away, pounded on Mark's chest, and gave him one more good slap for good measure, in case he was so obstinate as to never wake again.
Mark gasped, his eyes flying open, his chest heaving as air rushed in.
"Son of a. . ." Roger scooped him into his arms, ignoring the pained cry of protest. Collins sat back on his heels in relief and scrubbed a hand over his face. Benny smiled, and in an unusual show of affection, ruffled the man's hair. Roger just rocked his friend for a while, unable to say anything. Mark let him, stunned.
"You should be dead," Benny said bluntly. "You know that?"
Mark just blinked at him, mouth open as he dazedly sucked in precious air. His hand clutched Roger's shirt as realization slowly dawned on him.
"Okay," Collins said from over his shoulder, "easy. Take it slow. You hurt anywhere?" He carefully probed the still legs, Mark's arms, and his chest very, very gently. Mark didn't jerk away in pain.
But he did pass out.
They carried him over the rubble, stumbling and cursing as their ankles turned. The door was unblocked. Collins set down Mark's legs and reached out to open it. A thought stopped him. "Wait. What about Nate?"
"What about him?" Roger asked, almost nastily.
"We can't just leave him here."
"Sure we can. Open that door."
"You haven't learned much, have you?" a voice said behind them. Nate stood behind them, the blood streaming down his face, looking like a vision of hell itself. Roger adjusted his grip on Mark, pulling his friend's arm over his shoulder. Benny did the same, both ready to bolt with the man between them if need be.
Nate winced and gave his head a shake. "It all went wrong anyway," he said in a desperate sigh, half to himself. "The transfer didn't work." He bent double, about to collapse, but not quite making it to the ground.
Roger shifted his hold once again. "What do you mean, it didn't work? You thanked us! You said . . . "
Nate looked up, coated with exhaustion. "He didn't get it, no. Unfortunately, through this little game we've found out that there are those unwilling to give their power up. Therefore the balance has not been restored," he waved his hand listlessly, "therefore the world is still in peril."
"When isn't it?" Mark asked softly.
Roger shook his head and turned his attention to his friend. "We've done enough damage," he said softly to Nate. "Deal with this one yourself."
Nate straightened. "It isn't that easy."
"You can't just leave!"
Roger and the others had turned away. "Wanna bet?" he tossed over his shoulder.
He heard the voice behind him, even as he walked off. "You're not finished. You'll see what I mean when you find yourself under attack with no one to turn to."
"I'll take my chances," Roger muttered, knowing Nate heard him. They exited the shaky structure just before it collapsed, not waiting around to see if Nate did the same.
The room was dark but for the lights being cast through the large loft windows that overlooked the city. It created odd shadows, enough to where one needed be cautious of one's footsteps, while brightening the room just enough to allow one to walk at all. Roger sat alone, plucking gently at the strings of his guitar. He didn't need light for that; so many times he had shut himself in the tiny bathroom and played alone in the dark, those haunting times when he so desperately needed a hit, those times after April died, the time he thought Mimi was going to. Mark knew to leave him alone during those moods, yet Roger could always feel his presence hovering nearby, just in case he was needed. He was damned used to that, and he was surprised at the degree to which he needed that stability.
They'd managed to find a road, and a driver willing to help. Rather than heading to a hospital, they returned to the loft, arguing about hospitals and ambulances and what the hell were they supposed to tell people, they didn't have a fucking CPAP labeled to relieve supernatural events. The driver, who had been concerned upon seeing the men, was all to glad to be rid of them at that point.
They didn't know what was wrong with him, but Mark insisted in a semi-drugged tone that he felt fine. With no one to turn to they laid him in his bed and set up in the den to wait, too wired to sleep.
The evening passed. The morning came. Benny had to go to work, exhausted as he was. . .the truth of the matter was he was tired of waiting around for Mark to wake up and needed the distraction. Even Collins begged off once he realized that Roger wasn't going anywhere, he had work to do and wanted to do it while he could, because he wanted to be around when Mark was coherent. The sofa wasn't big enough for the three of them and Roger's guitar, and he was tired of the mindless plucking. Roger didn't blame him for leaving.
The day passed, the guys checked in to find no change. Day two passed, day three started.
Roger hadn't even changed his clothes. His hair looked tormented. His eyes were circled. His fingers were numb from the strings, and a blister was forming. He would stop just long enough to look in on Mark, take a piss, get a drink, then settle down to strum again.
The evening came. He was still strumming.
A sound he couldn't be sure was real made him stop. He turned slowly to the window to see a large crow perched on the rail, its red eyes staring Roger down. The beak pecked angrily against the window, and it cawed loudly.
Roger jumped up and ran into Mark's room.
He wasn't there.
Roger stared in disbelief, shaking his head, his breath coming in great gasps. He spun around at the noise behind him. The crow had come in, somehow, and was walking toward him, claws clacking on the hard floor.
It was just a damn bird. No bird of death, just a damn bird. He backed away.
The bird continued to walk slowly toward him, sharp beak pointed right at him, red eyes gleaming. It seemed to grow as it came closer, and screeched in a high-pitched voice as it charged, aiming right for Roger's eyes.
"Roger! Wake up!"
Roger's eyes flew open. His hands were over his face. He was lying on his back on the sofa, his guitar lying across his stomach. A hand was on his shoulder, and he could feel where the cushion was depressed by someone's weight.
He snapped his head and sat up quickly, grabbing his guitar by the neck and shoving it aside, nearly hitting his friend on the head with it. "Mark!" Roger stared, wide-eyed.
Mark gave a small, confused smile. "Bad dream?"
It was such a normal thing to ask, as though Mark hadn't been asleep for nearly three days. "Yeah! Uh. . ." Roger replied, pulling at his face with his hand, "yeah. Dream." He looked at his friend, studying him closely, trying to shake the terror of the bird that had tried to claw his eyes out, a bird of death with eyes as red as Mark's had been when . . .
Mark nodded and pushed at Roger's legs, making room to sit beside him on the sofa. "I just walked in when you started yelling. Think you woke up right as I touched you."
"Yeah, thanks. You okay?"
Roger pulled in a shaky breath, and glared accusingly. "You slept long enough!"
"Guess I was tired." Mark looked tired. He looked exhausted, actually, but his smile was genuine, and not pained.
Of course he was. Right? How did one diagnose something like this? His stomach growled, and Roger jumped on a chance at normalcy. "Hey, you hungry?" He pushed Mark up from the sofa and sprang to his feet. "I got some left over Chinese, courtesy of Collins."
"You working on your alliteration?" Mark teased. "Must've been songwriting while I was out."
"Not really." Roger was already in the kitchen. He pulled out two plates, and an unopened carton of chicken fried rice. He stopped, trying to reconcile himself to the fact that, again, he was doing something so normal. The dream-eyes haunted him, everything about that haunted him, and now he was preparing fucking fried rice. The pause didn't go unnoticed.
"Roger . . ."
Normalcy be damned. "Look, I'm sorry." Roger turned to face Mark, leaning back against the counter. "I'm so sorry I did that to you, I didn't know . . ."
Mark just stood, shaking his head. "You didn't do anything. You needed help."
"I couldn't, I mean I should've . . ."
"What? Died?" Mark huffed and waved him away. "You know, after all that I can't believe we're going to argue about this again."
"No! We're not." Roger turned back to the food. "Just . . .thanks, you know?"
"Yeah. You're welcome." Mark hesitated, then stood at his shoulder. "Cold Chinese smells awful."
Roger nodded to the microwave. "That's what that thing's for."
Mark's eyes widened, and he laughed. "Hey! When did this show up?"
"It was, uh, Benny. Says somehow he ended up with two."
"Hurray for divorce settlements."
Roger smiled. "No metal or foil in it, okay?"
"Right." Mark practically had his head inside. "Now we don't have to wait forever for the stove to heat up!"
"See?" Roger smiled and handed Mark a plate. "Things are looking better already." He grinned. He decided not to tell Mark about the note he'd found taped to that microwave that had mysteriously appeared at their door, a thank you gift from a man who insisted, "We shall meet again."
Again, maybe. But much, much later.
Nathaniel Greer sat in his chair. He didn't move, other than to tap his forefinger on the arm of the chair in time with his heartbeat. He was thinking, thinking of what went wrong, of how he himself had screwed up, of what he was going to tell his boss, his friend. There was no need to summon him. Nate's screen beeped at him. He glanced over, and tapped a button. "You're late."
"Since when do you dictate my timeliness?" the voice asked.
"Since I missed dinner waiting for you."
"Oh, Nate, I know you of old. You have no appetite." The voice sounded humored.
And I know you of old, my friend, Nate thought sadly. "You know what's happened, obviously."
"I am amazed you could have blundered so badly. But then you always were a bit of a second card."
"Didn't seem to matter to you."
"No. It didn't. So, how do you plan to fix this?"
Nate continued to tap his forefinger against the arm of his chair. "I don't know."
"You didn't find the vessel."
"In fact, I do believe you tried to destroy what we've spent so many years searching for." The voice grew hard.
"What makes you say that?" Nate asked lightly.
"Do not play games. I could, and should, kill you for doing what you did. You've no idea what we lost."
There was a time when Nate's friend wouldn't have said those words. He had a vague recollection of being pulled out of a bar, years ago, by this same man who now threatened to kill him. He knew it wasn't a mild threat, a figure of speech. He was perfectly capable of doing it. But that fact that this same man had pulled him from a bar to avoid violence showed just how far he'd gone, how his mutation was affecting him. "You should. But you won't. Because I too know you of old, my friend."
There was a snort of disgust. "Perhaps. But what are you going to do for me today?"
Nate winced slightly in indecision. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the ceramic piece, studying the spiral design. "I don't know," he said softly, and his eyes held a determined gleam. "But I'm not giving up."
Mark sat in a folding chair on the rooftop, elbows resting on his knees. The city lights were alive below him, stimulating the restlessness he felt. He sighed deeply and glanced at his sleeve, which was pulled far over his hand. That wasn't abnormal, he had a tendency to wear clothes that were a little long in the sleeve. The fact that he had pulled it down to stretch over his fingertips could be attributed to the chill in the air, except that he'd had it pulled down all evening.
Roger was visiting Mimi, with strict instructions not to breath a word of what had happened. Both Collins and Benny were doing their thing, whatever that was, neither feeling the need to cling to the others just because they had gone through a few harrowing events. Everyone needed space, needed to clear their heads. He couldn't fault them for that. Only, it put him up on the rooftop, alone. Fingers scratched at the sleeve, and he finally raised the cuff.
The faint tattoo of a spiral was visible on his inner wrist.
He slowly covered it again, and continued to stare out over the city.
(Look for part two in the series, coming soon)